The Chinese Unicorn Qilin

The Chinese Unicorn Qilin – The Spellbinding Creature

Unicorn myths have existed for thousands of years in various cultures. The ancient Chinese culture also has its own unicorn called qilin. The Chinese unicorn qilin is quite different from the typical European unicorn.

Qilin  does not look like a horse, but it is rather a dragon-like creature.

Today, we are going to explore the Chinese unicorn, starting with its history. Next, we will take a look at the appearance of qilin. The legends about qilin and this mythical creature´s meaning in Taoism and Buddhism will also be discussed.

chinese unicorn qilin
A qilin statue in Beijing.
chinese unicorn
A bronze qilin statue in Summer Palace, Beijing.

The History of Chinese Unicorn Myth – Qilin Is Identified with Giraffes.

Qilin is mentioned for the first time in Zhuo Zhuan, “The Commentary of Zhuo”, an old Chinese chronicle of history. This book covers episodes taking place from 722 BCE to 468 BCE.

As strange as it sounds, in the Ming Dynasty the qilin became associated with giraffes. The reason for this was a Chinese explorer Zheng He, who brought two giraffes from Somalia to Nanjing. The giraffes were thought to be qilin.

Because of this association between giraffes and qilin, even today, the Japanese word for qilin, kirin, means both a unicorn and a giraffe.

What Does the Qilin Look Like?

Despite the association between qilin and giraffes, the Chinese unicorn is not described to look like either a giraffe or a horse. Most often qilin resembles the Chinese dragon.

Qilin is often gold-colored, but it can be any color. They can have either antlers or hooves. Qilin often has a flowing mane and a beard.

Qilin can even sometimes have a fur or feathers. Most often they have scales like those of a dragon or a fish on part of their bodies. Qilin is portrayed with its body on fire from time to time. That is because qilin can also breathe fire like a dragon.

Sometimes the Chinese unicorn is not actually portrayed as a unicorn, because it can also have two horns. I found photos of qilin I took on my trip to China in 2015. I noticed the qilin statues I encountered had various looks. Many of these qilin statues also had two horns.

The bronze qilin statue in the Summer Palace in Beijing  has very dragon-like features; scales, mane and a beard. However, it has hooves instead of antlers. It also has two horns instead of one.

Another qilin statue I have photographed in Beijing (on the image left above), is a little different from the one in Summer Palace. I think this photo is taken in the temple of Confucius. I´m not quite sure, though.

This qilin´s head looks more like a head of a lion. It also has antlers, not hooves. It has some scales, but less than the qilin in Summer Palace. Its tail is pointing upwards, and it has two horns.

In the National Museum of China, I took a photo of two peculiar “Chinese unicorns”. The one on the right looks like a cat to me. It even has a long tail like a cat, but it has a single horn like a unicorn.

The “unicorn” on the left side seems to be a fish with a single horn. It might also represent a narwhal. If anyone knows what these statues represent, please let me know!

chinese unicorn myth
Peculiar qilin ornaments in the National Museum of China, Beijing.

Legends About the Qilin

Qilin is one of the gatekeepers in Chinese mythology. According to legends, qilin would only appear before the reign of a benevolent ruler or sage. It is told, that a qilin also appeared before the birth of Confucius.

Chinese emperors really wanted a qilin to appear during their reign, so that they could prove how great rulers they were. This also explains why the emperor claimed the giraffes brought to China to be qilin.

There are many good values the qilin symbolizes in Chinese mythology; longevity, good luck, prosperity, success, protection and fertility. The heavenly voice of qilin sounds like the wind or chiming bells.

The Chinese Unicorn Qilin in Taoism and Buddhism

Qilin also has a role in religion. In Taoism, qilin is described as a creature that is able tell evil from good. Qilin only punishes the evil ones. It is told that qilin has appeared in court to tell, if the defendant was guilty or innocent.

According to Buddhism, qilin are peace-loving vegetarians. They avoid harming any living creatures. They don´t want to even harm grass, so they don´t walk on grass, but instead they are described to walk on clouds or water.

Qilin defend pure people, and these normally peaceful creatures can become fierce, if they defend a pure person from an evil one.

Qilin – One of The Significant Mythical Creatures in China

The Chinese unicorn, qilin, is an ancient mythical creature. It has different variations, and it is a mixture of different animals. Often qilin has features of a dragon, and it also has scales. Qilin also sometimes has fur or feathers. Part of it´s body can be on fire, and it can have either hooves or antlers.

Technically, qilin is not always a unicorn, because it can also have two horns instead of one.

In Chinese mythology, qilin is a good omen. It is told that qilin appears before the birth of a benevolent ruler or sage.

According to Taoism, qilin can tell evil from good. In Buddhism, qilin is a peaceful creature and won´t harm any living beings. They don´t eat flesh, and they even avoid walking on grass. Qilin can be fierce, when they defend a good person from an evil one.

You might also like our post on Japanese unicorn kirin.

Do you have some additional information about the Chinese unicorn myth you would like to share? What do you think, is qilin still a unicorn, even though it´s so different from the classic European unicorn?

Please share your thoughts about qilin in the comment section below!

6 thoughts on “The Chinese Unicorn Qilin – The Spellbinding Creature”

  1. Ronald L. Washington


    Your post is interesting and intriguing. As a minister and teacher of World History, I was struck by the amount of information I had never heard of. It was engaging to think about how the qilin is similar to angels in Christianity and how they function the same. It occurred to me that all religion has something common.

    Great article. Keep up the good work!

  2. I love unicorns and I love dragons- but I had not heard of the Chinese unicorn before today. What an interesting, informative article. The first few pictures of the qilin statue in Beijing I would not have associated with a unicorn because it has two horns. But I totally see it in the other two pictures.

    Thank you for sharing!

    1. Thanks, Amber! Yes, some of the qilin statues in China are easy to confuse with other animals like dragons and lions, which also have many statues.

  3. Sam Frederiksen

    That was really interesting,
    I really not sure how to answer your question at the end of your post, Is it a unicorn? It certainly does not look like what I seen protrayed as a unicorn in the last. It like you said looks nothing like a horse or even a giraffe for that matter.

    But as many things that are mysterious, often stories are retold slightly different each time and well who knows maybe all the horse like unicorns most westerners see as unicorns actually look a lot more like this chinese unicorn. Is an article I wrote chinese new year. Do you think other than when great sages and leaders are about to be announced that chinese new year would be a good time to see one of these mythical chinese Qilin.

    As Chinese new year from what I understand is all about getting rid of evil spirits and letting good spirits come in? Would seem like what I believe this chinese unicorn would like:)

    1. Hi Sam,

      You´re right, the Chinese new year would be an appropriate time for the Chinese unicorn to show up. Especially if it was the year of a dragon beginning!

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